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Cygnet Bay Pearl Farm

Photo by Dan Wood

Interview with – Paula O’Brien of Cygnet Bay Pearls.

The Kimberley coastline is a unique natural and cultural treasure. Spanning more than 2,000 kms and despite settlement, there are still areas that remain uncharted, unexplored and undiscovered. Dean Brown arrived in 1946, skippering a rickety wooden lugger through crocodile-infested waters to discover the beautiful Cygnet Bay. Originally established to collect mother-of-pearl, this Australian family run operation has grown to become the first Australian company to culture pearls and has been home to the Brown family for over 60 years. The Brown family are one of three producers of the famous Broome pearl.

“It started with diving for the pearl shell itself, that’s where the business was.”

With just one pearl found for around five thousand shells collected, the main trade was in the shell. The incredible iridescent quality of the beautiful Pinctada Maxima meant lucrative business in mother-of-pearl inlay work and buttons. This is how it all started for Dean Brown and business boomed until the plastics industry became a more viable option for manufacturing buttons. To subsidise his income, Dean began running food supplies up to Kuri Bay where a Japanese company was attempting to culture pearls on a commercial basis. He immediately saw an opportunity to get involved, applied for a license and began his own experimentation into culturing pearls with his sons.

“The family was self-taught, waves of trial and error and then success.”

It actually takes three shells to create one pearl and up to six years cultivation time. There’s so much invested in the outcome and no two pearls are the same, similar but not the same. It’s a process that is undertaken firstly in a sterile environment where one shell is used to hold and grow the pearl, one to donate ‘nacre’ mantle tissue and one to create the nucleus of the seed to start the whole process. Then the shells are transferred to the ocean where they hang in vertical water racks. Contrary to popular belief, it’s actually nothing to do with sand or grains of sand trapped inside the shell, there’s a real science to it all.

“Being family owned and Australian made is very much part of our identity.”

From setting up a school in the 1980s for the Brown family children, to building the community for the pearling families that were recruited to come to Cygnet Bay, we’ve focussed on creating a real sense of family over the years. Importantly, we’ve worked closely with local indigenous families, building up the business before the new local communities were established. We are very connected to the role of nurturing business along with our place in the pearling heritage of Broome. This is supported by a great respect for and genuine connection to the land and the water. We are extremely active in conserving our natural resource. Cygnet Bay is where it all started and where we call home.

“The boom period spanning the 80’s and 90’s took our pearls to the world stage.”

During this time, we suddenly started to see a real sense of commercial success. The Australian market became increasingly known for producing beautiful pearls. This resulted in major demand especially from the American and European markets. Pearling has always been a boom or bust industry from the time where we collected the shells and the culture pearling industry has been the same. The eighties and nineties were when we really saw it come together.

“The main challenge is retaining the essence of our heritage as we expand.”

The key for us is to keep our foundation pearl business at the core of all other activity. Staying true to the heart of what we do with the pearl farm allows us to clearly manage all other ventures, there is always a guiding focus. This is where it is so important to have the family connection and that family love for it. Generations of hard work have gone into creating this heritage brand, it’s a passion that continues on from culturing pearls to growing pearl meat. There is a real romance to the pearl business that we nurture, we’re sharing a rare and precious resource.

“We’re taking pearl meat to the culinary stage.”

Pearl meat is becoming increasingly popular and a growing part of our business. It has garnered interest over the last couple of years, and beyond serving a full pearl meat degustation menu in our restaurant, we’ve supplied chefs like Ben Shewry of Attica in Melbourne, Peter Gilmore and even Heston Blumenthal. This came about with the ‘Invite The World To Dinner’ event hosted by Tourism Australia in 2014 and it really took off from there. At the moment, fresh pearl meat sells in 1KG bags for around $140 per kilo, we’re hoping to start selling in smaller quantities and find a method to deliver it ‘fresh’ to chefs further afield.

“Nurturing the soft edge of pearl farming.”

Over the years, the company has expanded from pearls and pearl meat to accommodation, restaurant and tours of the pearl farm and the stunning Buccaneer Archipelago. We’ve just opened our elevated dining area, a swimming pool and offer safari tents, cabins and camping. Our pearls and fresh pearl meat increasingly attract visitors from a higher socioeconomic bracket. Right now, we’re in the midst of creating a 5 star lodge to accommodate our new luxury seeking travellers. We are also involved in a tourism group on the peninsula that encourage tourists to explore the greater area. Our visitors are most fascinated and surprised by the process of culturing pearls, the consistent reaction is “I had no idea”, it really has that wow factor. It’s also a thrill to watch as guests enter the property, we’re in quite a rugged bush area that gives way to an oasis, it’s always a surprise. We’re a working pearl farm, but I guess you could say that the edges have been softened.

“We’re not only part of the heritage, but we are part of the future.”

As the oldest pearl farm in Australia, we’re proud to champion the business in this very beautiful but very difficult industry. Our dream going forward is to strengthen our growth areas around the core of our vibrant pearl farm. We’ve never been secretive and we’d like to show even more of our workings, to pull back the curtain if you like, share the behind the scenes knowledge. It strengthens our position that not only do we grow the pearls, but we are the experts at growing pearls. It’s not an easy business, there are only three pearl producers left in Western Australia and we’re so honoured to be here. Looking out at the salt water paddocks that stretch across the horizon, the water that moves for our pearls and our shell, it’s quite simply incredible.